Saturday 29 July 2023

More Military Strategy


Ever being one to put my money where my mouth is, readers of last week’s post will have realised that I am reading about strategy, specifically military strategy. So far it has been quite interesting. The most controversial revelation so far is the proposition that Napoleon was a poor strategist – Black references a book called Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns. Has anyone read it?

Anyway, reading continues, of course, with the next book in the strategy pile:

Echevarria, A. J., Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, OUP, 2017).

I find the very short introduction series rather good, on the whole, and this is not an exception. It is more about specifically military strategy, as opposed to Black’s book which is much more focussed on the interface between military strategy and political strategy. Not that the VSI ignores these aspects, it is just that the emphasis is slightly different.

Echevarria discusses a range of military strategies, which I suppose you would describe as being at the theatre or operational level. These come in pairs, and each pair gets a chapter: annihilation and dislocation, attrition and exhaustion, deterrence and coercion, terror and terrorism, and decapitation and targetted killing. The introduction discusses exactly what military strategy is, and the book ends with a chapter on cyber power and military strategy, before considering what causes strategies to succeed or fail.

There are some interesting examples in the book. The annihilation section discusses Cannae (216 BC) which, as every wargamer will know, is a classic example of double envelopment. Very cunning and clever by Hannibal, we agree. I do wonder a little whether it is really an example of strategy, however, but there you go. Echevarria does observe that despite the victory in battle, Hannibal lost the war. This was not really his fault – Carthaginian councils were divided between empire and Africa, and that was never really resolved until it was far too late and the Romans were at the gates.

The next example is Napoleon in 1805 against the Austrians and Russians, culminating in Austerlitz and Ulm. Napoleon feinted, attacked from an unexpected direction, and separated the allies, defeating each in detail. As with Hannibal, this won the campaign, possibly even won the war, but did not win the peace. After all, Napoleon had massed his armies on the Channel threatening invasion of Britain; the campaigns to the east only came about once it was clear that was not going to happen, and with Britain (and, more importantly, Britain’s money) still in the fight, winning peace on French terms was always going to be difficult.

The next main example is the 1940 German attack on France, a thrust in an unexpected direction followed up by a war of movement in the Allied rear areas. This leads to a discussion of ‘getting inside an opponent’s decision cycle’, which means, basically, command and control which has accurate enough information and a swiftness of decision-making such that the enemy’s decision-making is always behind you. On the other hand, blitzkrieg had its limitations, at the Germans found to their great cost in Russia. While they managed to encircle and annihilate huge quantities of men and material, attrition wore the Germans down, dogged if doomed resistance delayed support troops and the logistics could not keep up.

As you might have surmised by now, there is a lot in a little book. Most of the elements of the chapters are mirror images of each other. Attrition and exhaustion refer to the running out of men and material on the one hand, and the destruction of the will to resist on the other. Deterrence and coercion refer to the ideas of stopping someone from doing something by threatening something worse and forcing someone to do something. And so on. The chapters on terrorism and cyber power projection are interesting, particularly given current events, as is the chapter on decapitation and targeted killing. As it turns out, a lot of these strategies, in terms of the war they are involved in, often collapse into attritional combat.

In terms of wargaming, the final chapter is the most interesting, perhaps, certainly for those of us interested in campaigns. Echevarria identified four stand-out tasks for a successful strategy. The first of these is a critical assessment of the enemy and their strengths and weaknesses, compared with your own. This should result in an objective assessment of capabilities, which can be updated as new information becomes available and circumstances change.

The second task of strategy is to use the assessment to develop courses of action. This requires the definition of an objective (or a number of objectives) and the means for obtaining them. This does not necessarily mean only military action; in these days, of course, information warfare, often conducted in cyberspace is thought to give the results the international actors require.

Thirdly, a commander must be selected who has the knowledge, skills, competence, and support to execute the strategy in detail. Echevarria observes that Lincoln fired six generals before appointing Grant, while Churchill went through three before appointing Montgomery to the Western Desert. Knowledge of the enemy’s commander helps a lot here. Rommel, which incisive and original became a little predictable, as did Marlborough. Thus the latter might have won at Malplaquet but the cost was because he used, roughly, the same approach as at Blenheim.

The last requirement of a strategy is a set of coherent and comprehensive plans. These form the link between policy and military strategy and set the objectives, parameters for the campaign, tasks, and subtasks for commanders. These can be simple or complex, direct or indirect, and have two divergent aims. The first is to weaken the enemy’s capacity to fight and to achieve the war’s aims. The military often pursue the first while politicians pursue the second if only to keep costs (men and material) down. We also can observe that often hubris and imperial overstretch cause wars to fail, as with Napoleon and Hitler, but on the other hand, the failure to exploit opportunity can lead to greater costs, prolongation of the conflict, and failure of the war.

I am quite enthusiastic about this book in terms of wargaming and campaigns. I think it should probably be on the shelf of any wargamer who raises their heads above the goal of capturing the crossroads as it is, firstly, fairly cheap, secondly, short, and thirdly, packed full of content to make us think.

Saturday 22 July 2023

Military Strategy

A while ago I mused, rather unproductively, on wargaming and strategy, mostly to the effect that wargamers are much more interested in tactics than strategy. Having decided to flesh my understanding of the subject out (that is, raising it from nearly zero to slightly more than that) I have recently finished this:

Black, J., Military Strategy: A Global History (Yale, 2023)

Fear not, gentle reader, I am not really that up-to-date with my reading; the book was published in hardback in 2020. Still, it is an interesting read. I confess I am rather ambivalent about Black as a writer and historian. While I have a fair few of his books on my shelves, I do find that is range sometimes lets him down a bit. I think he was originally a historian of the late 17th and 18th Centuries and, as many historians who have retired, he has expanded his scope rather a lot. On the other hand, I do not know all that much about history, even military history, from the Eighteenth Century on, so who am I to comment.

I suppose that Black concentrates mostly on what we can call ‘grand strategy’, the big picture. As such he is keen to emphasise the links between international and domestic politics as well as technology and capability, that is the ability to deploy effective forces somewhere where they might be needed. This of course varies with the context, and so military planning is often a case of guessing what is going to happen and hoping that you might be right and, therefore, have the right forces in the right place at the right time.

For Black, then, strategy is a practice rather than a set of theories or theoretical laws derived from history. On the other hand, a state does develop what he calls a ‘strategic culture’ which is what the elites who do the planning and commanding worry about. For Britain in the Eighteenth Century, for example, the strategic culture regarded, mostly, France and how to contain her, maintaining some sort of continental equilibrium. Similarly for Germany from the 1870s until 1945 the question was how to avoid a war on two fronts. Black notes that in World War One Germany eventually achieved that after 1917, while in World War Two Hitler provoked it. Not, perhaps, the most sensible strategic decision.

Another interesting point that Black makes is that many strategists (as opposed to academics), virtually ignore the literature on the subject, such as Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. Indeed, one of the Chinese emperors forbade his generals to read Sun Tzu, regarding it as useless. Academics, on the other hand, are a lot more comfortable with the written word and so spend a lot of time and ink on analysis of the masters of strategy.

In passing, it is interesting to note that a lot of academics seem not to think that strategy existed before Machiavelli. This is in spite of works on my shelf including Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire and Sharpe’s War Cruel and Sharp: English Strategy under Edward III. Even though Black starts his account in the Eighteenth Century, when the grammar of strategy started to be formalised, he does acknowledge that the concept and practice of it date back at least to Thucydides. The Athenians and Spartans did have strategies, even though they would not have called what they had such.

There are a lot of interesting snippets in the book. For example, when he came to power in 1940 Churchill did not really have a strategy for winning the war. Black remarks he just hoped for the best. Perhaps that is all he could do at the time. On the other hand, Black also discusses the debates in the Anglo-American alliance over the Mediterranean theatre, with the US being less keen on developing it. Churchill might have been at least a little bit right there. While Italy was not the soft underbelly of Europe that he hoped, Hitler diverted resources there from the Eastern Front which might have changed the outcome of the Battle of Kursk.

There are other interesting bits that I am sure period specialists can comment on. Napoleon, for example, is often held up as the epitome of a strategist. Black indicates that his grand strategy was flawed (he landed up fighting on several fronts at once), his diplomacy a failure, and that his operational successes were more often due to his opponent’s errors and the ability of his corps commanders to dig each other of the problems Napoleon had created for them. Maybe this is harsh, but Black references a book entitled Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns. Perhaps someone who knows more of the matter than I could comment.

In a sense, this is old-school military history, but it avoids the drums and trumpets of describing the battles, focussing instead on the issues of geopolitics and alliances which determine outcomes. As Black notes several times, it is harder than a lot of generals and politicians realise to move from a tactical victory to a strategically successful outcome. While German and Japanese ideology focussed on their will to victory, as opposed to the softies opposing them, and they obtained victories against said opponents, which sort of vindicated their approach initially, they misjudged both their diplomatic isolation and the determination of their enemies to win. This landed up, in Japan, with the military running out of strategic options. After the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, the only option left as a strategy for the armed forces was to die heroically.

The book is most interesting and worth a read. I am not entirely sure how it could be translated into wargaming terms, although I am kicking some vague ideas around. For example, the American Civil War has an interesting strategic setup, with the capitals within 100 miles or so of each other, and the question for both sides as to what resources to devote to the area west of the Appalachians. One to ponder.

Saturday 15 July 2023

When In (or Near) Rome

 The Machiavelli 1499 campaign has now got to the Summer of 1503, and with this, the confrontation between the Neapolitan Spanish and Papal States has got, well, even more significant. The manoeuvres of the various sides have been halting, of course (that is by design) but the Spanish have managed to move a second army to the Papal States to reinforce the one which had a defensive victory over the Papal armies last time out. Given the defeat, the latter experienced last time the Papal armies are now outnumbered and isolated while attempting to defend Rome.

In other news, the war between the Vatican and Venice proceeds, with the Venetians doing a city grab on Ancona, much to the Pope’s irritation and strategic problematicalness, while a Papal army has gone walkabout in the north and is besieging Trent.

As Papal general, I had a problem, in that the loss of Ancona, coupled with the likely loss of Rome would mean that only one home city, Bologna, would remain between me and being knocked out of the campaign. As it is, the loss of Rome would mean the loss of an army in the next winter turn, as the Florentines have nicked Piombino as well.

With some trepidation, then, the Papal army stood on the defensive against the combined might of the Spanish armies, or at least one and a half Spanish armies. Fortunately, I rolled up a nice defensive position, so it was not a wholly unviable situation.

The Papal army is to the left in the picture, the infantry deployed on a hill. The left-wing cavalry is also on a hill, while the right is in a meadow by the stream. The river is mostly unfordable (except by the ford), unless a six is rolled. The Spanish have deployed their light cavalry looking for a second ford, while their skirmishing crossbow foot is aiming to cross the marsh. The Spanish lights will converge on the known ford and attempt to cross there, followed by the heavy cavalry and arquebusiers.

As Papal commander, I was acutely aware of the strategic situation and wanted to fight really defensively. The aim was to keep the army intact, and hopefully defend Rome, but I would need to troops to retake Ancona in due course, with the help of the navy.

In the picture above the blue triangles indicate the location of the fords. One was next to the existing ford, which did not really affect the situation as it was already covered by the mounted crossbowmen and right-wing gendarmes. The jinites, however, were forcing the other ford and that was a problem because they were followed by the Spanish gendarmes.

A whirling cavalry fight on the Papal left ensued. The jinites skirmished the Papal heavies and nearly held them off long enough for the Spanish gendarmes to recover their order after crossing the ford. The Papal advance routed one base of jinites but at some cost to their own order, and were counter-charged by the Spanish, uphill. The Spanish gendarmes refused to charge, however, but their general was present and led them into the Papal forces, whom they overcame. This was by dint of numbers and having jinites available to flank the Papal cavalry.

The Spanish did not have it all their own way, and it took a few moves to rout the Papal left and the Spanish heavy cavalry were dispersed over the hill. However, that was enough to convince me, as Papal commander, that the time had come to abandon Rome and make for Ancona.

My strategic reasoning was given above. Tactically the loss of the left wing gave a major problem. Although the situation at the main ford was blocked, keeping it so required the gendarmes of the right wing. Anything less and the Spanish would be across. The transfer of the gendarmes to cover the left would also take time which, even though the Spanish right would need time to recover, I probably did not have. Furthermore, the mounted crossbowmen were coming under fire from the jinites of the Spanish right and the Spanish were also directing their crossbowmen to the ford on their right.

If the Spanish had crossed the ford in force, then my infantry on the hill would have been in danger of being surrounded, outshot, and threatened by gendarmes. And that would be before the Spanish arquebusiers had got into the action at the main ford.

On the whole then, both the tactical and the strategic situation suggested that retreating and abandoning Rome would be the best idea. The Papal army disengaged and moved back to Spoleto. If they get another initiative card in the autumn they might yet save Ancona. Anything else and Ancona will remain controlled by Venice and the Papacy will have to lose an army in the winter. I am now regretting the city grab that the Papal fleet indulged in in siezing Dalmatia. This opened Ancona to the Venetian fleet, which they took advantage. Sometimes city grabs are counter-productinve.

This was very interesting as an example of the interaction of the strategic and the tactical. If the Papal army had managed to stave off the Spanish then Rome would have been saved, but after the left was defeated that was really no longer a possibility. I could have fought on, but in all probability the Papal army would have been defeated on the battlefield and eliminated, leaving no chance of recapturing Ancona, as opposed to the present little chance.

There may well be a lesson involved in this. The tactical does not always dictate the outcomes of battles. There is often a higher level, even in a very simple strategic game like Machiavelli. The Papal States simply cannot afford to lose another army, especially in battle, unless I am reading the situation wrongly. Even if they do not retake Ancona this year, they can lose the army in Trent without seriously damaging their strategic situation, at least on the assumption that the Spanish will track south to tackle the French in southern Italy, rather than chase them across through Spoleto. We shall see.

Saturday 8 July 2023

Advanced War Games

Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the nostalgic water, along comes another wave, this time

Featherstone, D., Donald Featherstone’s Advanced War Games, History of Wargames Project 2022

Strictly speaking, for me, this is not a trip down memory lane, as I had never read it before. First published in 1969, it is subtitled Ideas for Wargaming and, as with most of Featherstone’s books (or the ones I have read) that is an accurate description of the contents.

To dispose of the negative points first. The book is clearly created in the HoW project using optical character recognition. The problem is that sometimes OCR doesn’t. That is, it does not recognise characters and so you occasionally get some garbage. Unless the documents are checked (that is, proofread) the garbage gets into print, and so it is here with occasional gibberish reproduced. I have railed before about proofreading. It is really not that difficult and does not take that long. I suspect that the problem is more along the lines that the computer is always right more than anything else.

Anyway, the book comes in various sections – moving, firing, morale, mêléeing, ideas of automated war-gaming, solo and multi-player wargames, creation of armies, and improving wargaming. As usual, there is a welter of ideas, some incompatible, mostly inventive, some requiring the construction of assorted odd-shaped devices, and others relying on extensive tables. In short, a snapshot of what inventive and creative wargamers were doing in the 1960s.

As you might expect, some of the ideas have worn better than others. The automated wargaming ideas may well be rather outdated, and the arrival of the personal computer has probably made them more obsolete than might otherwise have been expected. On the other hand, they do point to issues and problems that are still extant in the world of wargaming. For example, the Timms War-games Computer (p 125 – 35) might not be to everyone’s taste, requiring a large quantity of file cards, paper clips, and preparation, but it was designed to address a specific problem which is still around, that of including all the various factors which contribute to the outcome of a battle or action within one: morale, esprit de corps, training, equipment, physical state, command, leadership and so on.

As the perpetrator of some sets of wargame rules, this is still a problem. A long time ago now I wrote a post about complexity. It is still a puzzle. In Polemos: SPQR the complexity is contained in the 20 or so factors for combat. I contended then, and still do, that DBA is just as complex, but the complexity is in the combat outcomes rather than the combat factors. I suppose the bottom line is that combat is complex, and various attempts at automation, whether it be the Timms computer, wargames rules as software or anything else is probably not going to solve that.

Another example is the Miles Rounders (p 137 – 143). These devices are aimed at giving the outcome of a modern tank combat at the flick of a finger. They consist of various round devices with two layers so that the wargamer can rotate the lower level to look at the specific situation, roll a die and obtain an outcome. Neat idea but, on the whole, they do not seem to have caught on.

Still, there is a lot of interesting stuff here; as I said, a lot of problems which are still extant in wargaming. Another example would be: what do we do about civilians? This is a matter of taste, of course, but somehow a method needs to be decided upon whether that is to ignore them or include them as participants, targets, or potential resistance fighters. This varies as the game varies.

I suppose one thing we get from Featherstone’s writing is that he was a bit of a wargaming butterfly. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, we all do it. But there are loads of ideas here, as in his other books, some of which are a bit underdeveloped. Now, that is, as a wargame writer, perhaps the best outcome. The idea is to stimulate the imagination and creativity of another wargamer (the reader), not to lay down specific rules and procedures for every situation and outcome. In today’s world that might be a bit more difficult than in the 1960s when the culture was more free-wheeling than it is, perhaps, now.

The book, therefore, does what it says on the (sub-)tin. It provides ideas for wargaming, to take, leave or develop as the reader wishes. It also fleshed out some of Featherstone’s other writings. For example, in Wargaming Campaigns there is a chapter of the French and Indian War where the French are mainly a single regiment a side, the Hampshires for the British (37th Foot) and the Royal Rousillon Regiment (37th Foot) for the French. Here (p 176-7) the actual structure of these forces is described. Each battalion formed of around 200 Spencer Smith figures. It must have looked, en mass, spectacular.

There are also contained some of the more standard things of wargaming that are often neglected in favour of a game. Couriers are given a page, the weather is discussed, the use of mercenaries gets a mention as do logistics and engineering problems. In short, there are a lot of ideas, pointers towards other things and, as the avid reader of Featherstone’s books will have noted, concepts that are repeated and fleshed out in other books, perhaps most notably the chapter on solo wargaming.

It is easy to dismiss these sorts of works as of only historical interest. After all, Featherstone, as I have complained, was a child of his age. More recent historiography has cast some doubt, perhaps, on the veracity of some of the military history he based his wargames around. He may also suffer a bit from the sort of colonialism that was perhaps still around in the days of rapid decolonisation. I am not sure. But the book as a whole is useful, not least as a pointer to some of the issues we still have to face today in reducing a real battle to a wargame table.

Saturday 1 July 2023

Does Size Matter?

The veteran reader of the blog will probably, given the title, be expecting another rant about the merits of 6 mm figures, or the iniquities of 28+ mm wargamers, or some such. Fear not, the post is about the size of armies, not toy soldiers. On the other hand, I might have quickened the interest of a few internet searchers for pornography along the way. Ho, as they say, hum.

Anyway, for reasons I am still trying to analyse, the Thirty Years War campaign was not working out very well and so it was, in the spirit of adventurous wargaming, abandoned forthwith. The decision was made to return to the Machiavelli 1499 game, which was suspended at the end of 1501 with the French on the brink of victory.

The situation at the start of 1502 is pictured above, although the far north of the map has been unfortunately chopped off. The Imperialists have just seized Milan from the isolated French garrison, while the French are starting to overrun northern Italy anyway. The main point of interest for this post is the Spanish Neapolitan army in Perugia, near the middle of the map. This was an unashamed ‘city grab’ by the said Neapolitan Spanish. I realised that they were never going to make any progress in southern Italy without some extra forces, and for extra forces you need cities. Therefore the army had been transported from Messina to Siena, which a Papal army had just vacated to besiege Piombino and, from thence, as Perugia was unoccupied, the army decided to overwinter there.

The consequence of this is that there are now three wars raging (sort of) on the map: the French against the Austrians (at least, when the French get any armies into the Milan theatre), the Papacy against Venice, which has been running since the start of the game, and now the Papacy against Neapolitan Spain.

On resetting the game I noticed a few errors had crept in. Venice gained a city because I had overlooked Dalmatia, for example, but with all the grace of a sophisticated Italian Renaissance Prince, I forgave my former self, vowing only to poison his drinks at the first opportunity. Nevertheless, the situation was rather tense in Italy, and a lot might depend on who drew the initiative.

In the Spring of 1502, both the French and the Papacy drew hearts. The French pivoted their forces north, to attempt to wrest Milan from the upstart Austrians. They were, however, two moves away from the city, so revenge would have to wait. Further south, however, the two central Papal armies ganged up on the Neapolitan Spanish in Perugia.

I confess that as Neapolitan commander, I was a bit bothered by this. While the terrain, as shown above, was reasonably broken up and had sufficient places to hide skirmishers (the N. S. have a lot of skirmishing crossbowmen, plus 4 bases of jinites), the Papal forces vastly outnumbered them in heavy cavalry and firepower.

The Spanish plan was to disrupt as much as possible with the skirmishers concealed in the various terrain and their jinites, while trying to pick off the disrupted Papal units with their own gendarmes, arquebusiers and sword and buckler men. The Papal plan, as seen above, was to advance in three columns, keeping the infantry on the road for speed and assault the more lightly held Spanish wings while deploying the infantry to blast away the centre.

The picture above sees the start of the execution of the plans. The jinites are forward and just in range while the Papal columns are advancing. Those of you with sharp eyes, however, will have already noticed a problem for the Pope’s legions. The first casualty of the game has been inflicted, and it was the Papal general. He had just set the infantry column moving and then had cantered across to the Papal left (right on the picture) to halt it, and then deploy the skirmishing screen. Incoming javelins from the jinites reduced the head of the column to a shaken mess, and the general himself was a casualty. You can see the gap (by the tempo marker gun) where he should have been.

As Papal commander, I seriously thought of abandoning the effort at this point, but weight of numbers suggested perseverance. The Papal army, although constantly disrupted by the jinites, managed to move forward, only a little more uncoordinated than was optimal.

As Spanish commander, I decided to take advantage of the slow and uncoordinated advance. The jinites are attacking the infantry column and, in the lower right of the picture, the Spanish gendarmes are moving forward. This was to be a major problem for the Papal army, because, a few moves later, they charged into the middle of the infantry column in flank and swept away the Papal pike men.

I realised afterward that this was very high risk for the Spanish. The fleeing pike men are across the front of the Papal right-wing gendarmes. You will notice that the Papal army has managed to deploy, so the newly victorious Spanish cavalry are extremely vulnerable to counter-attack. However, due to the difficulties in command the Papal army was suffering from, they got away with it. You will notice that the Spanish arquebusiers and skirmishers have emerged to attempt to attack the Papal infantry column. They did not manage that and the threat of the Papal gendarmes sent them scuttling back to cover.

While the Spanish gendarmes were reforming on their extreme left (between the stream and the village) the Papal wings advanced and forced back the jinites, in fact advancing into the ones of the Spanish left and giving them a mauling, while the mounted crossbowmen on the Papal left dealt similar treatment out to their opponents.

This, however, had left a gap between the Papal right-wing gendarmes and their foot, specifically the arquebusiers who were, of course, shorn of their protective pike. The Spanish gendarmes crept up and struck, routing two more bases. The Papal army went into fall-back moral mode, and then withdraw. As Spanish commander, I was relieved to see them go.

This was a fascinating wargame. The command and control implications of losing the general so early meant that, while initially, I was concerned for the Spanish army as it was heavily outnumbered, outgunned, and outmuscled, even getting the Papal army into action was an effort. As it was the marauding Spanish gendarmes managed to take out five bases in two charges and, essentially, win the game. If the Papal general had remained extant I think it would have been much closer or even an easy Papal win.

The effect on the campaign is quite significant. The Papacy is now under real pressure in the south, with their only army firmly anchored to Rome while the navy, which has been city snaffling in Dalmatia but is now really needed to defend Ancona.

The Spanish, of course, now have options to reinforce their position in central Italy, by either taking Piombino, adding to Papal woes, or adding another army to the one in Perugia and threatening Rome. At this rate, the Pope could get knocked out of the campaign.

As it happened, in summer 1502, no-one drew an initiative card, so Italy drowsed while everyone drew breath.